Unlike so many other movies out of Hollywood that have managed to soften the edges of slavery for U.S. sensibilities, this film, based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was duped into slavery in 1841, is an unrelenting depiction of slavery from the enslaved man’s perspective.
It deserves the rapturous reviews it has received from critics and the predictions that it will be an Oscar contender, but I believe that it serves the much more significant purpose of telling truths that we in the United States refuse to face.
Director Steven McQueen, a Brit with roots in Grenada and Trinidad, makes us behold the brutality involved in kidnapping millions of people and holding them in bondage. Even when I wanted to, I couldn’t look away. It would have been too disrespectful to my ancestors — and to the director’s. “People have to remember why I as an individual am sitting here today,” McQueen said about the film. “I’m here because members of my family went through slavery. Fact.”
We need this film’s unflinching examination of slavery because we are often incapable of facing it historically or confronting racism today. Tea party groups and other conservatives have actually tried to purge slavery from our textbooks. And the attack on people who receive food stamps or welfare is freighted with racial stereotypes.
Until we understand what American slavery was, we cannot fully understand why African-Americans and European-Americans see our country and the world in such profoundly different ways. Facing the truth about slavery is crucial for our country’s self-awareness and for moving forward — two indicators of a nation’s health.
Starita Smith is a writer for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Web site: www.progressive.org.